20 Years of Adventures in Story and Drama

This week I began a five week, fourteen workshop series in Guilsfield School near Welshpool. As these blogs will be paying a regular visit to update the project work I thought it might be a nice opportunity to remember some of the work I’ve done in the past. It was then that I realised that, give or take the odd month, it is more or less twenty years since I begun all this. So why not celebrate by remembering a few of the highlights of twenty years in theatre and story and select the odd photo along the way.

It began in the summer holidays, (remember them!) of 1995. Five of us gathered along with the local press in the skittle alley of The West India House, Durleigh Road, Bridgwater. where we were to begin rehearsing our first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two middle aged men who maybe should have known better, two young actresses – lately of my A Level Theatre studies group and one Exeter based musician. I no longer have that publicity picture of Brothers Tales, but the musician left after the first rehearsal. We remained friends but I don’t think we were for him.

This first picture shows the rude mechanicals in our production of the Dream and showcases Bottom’s impressive belly. The other mechanicals came courtesy of the local pound shop and how we got away with this I do not know, but they were certainly cheap labour! Later on John and I went on to produce a version of the play where four inmates from HM Prison Shepton Mallet played the parts the puppets couldn’t.

The Rude Mechanical Puppets!

The Rude Mechanical Puppets!

Alas and possibly fortunately, there are no existing pictures of our next production, ‘Dangerous Sports’. We were promised funding from the road traffic section of Somerset County Council, but all that ever appeared was three hundred pounds. John, Claire and I toured the show anyway in about 20 venues throughout Somerset, using a basic set, John’s home stereo system and two romper suits!, (don’t ask). The project was aimed at young drivers who had just passed their test. A series of comic vignettes followed our two heroes in pursuing ever dangerous sports and kept the audience chuckling. When things suddenly serious, our previous approach had all the more impact.

Instead here’s a picture to represent the History Days we perpetrated in local junior and primary schools for five years. A teacher from Wells Central High School phoned one day to ask if we did “Tudor Days.’ Needless to say it was the perfect excuse to invent one on the spot. It gave birth to a whole method of performance which I’ve used ever since. I invented our Potted Histories; a forty minute burst of facts, loud Hawaiian shirts and a series of wince making jokes. Accompanying that were workshops on the Armada and St Johns fair and our first fifty minute Shakespeare in pictures, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These children are trying their impersonation of professional Tudor mad girl Bess O’ Bedlam and Mad boy Tom O’ Bedlam. They’re good, aren’t they?

Various Attempts At Bedlam

Once or twice we actually did get funding for projects. One of these was from the Arts Council for the project we were commissioned to do by Sedgemoor District Council. “Splash’ was intended to encourage children to learn to swim before they reached secondary school. Claire’s wonderful seabird masks had been for an environmental project which never came off. I always intended to make use of all her hard work and in the dream sequence here I finally got the opportunity. The picture below it of a drunken Lizzie being greeted by her parents, (Nicky and Shaun) is every teenager’s nightmare.


By the time we did Splash the old company Brother’s Tales had split and I had formed Skin O’ The Teeth. We were now the resident company at Bridgwater Arts Centre. Apart from a new production of Romeo and Juliet for Key Stage 3, one of our oddest ventures was Shakespeare Sacred and Profane, where we combined so called authentic Shakespeare with some more outrageous modern ideas. Here are Matt, Lesley, Lizzie, Annette and myself really getting our teeth into the Bard.


It would be impossible to show a photographic history without more Hawaiian shirts so here they are again. This time Su, Paul and I are having fun in one of our arts centre showcases with our adaptations of two classic and silly English Folk Tales – Lazy Jack and The Three Sillies.


Finally in this celebration of shirts and puppets, a chance to see me in a wig as Judge Jeffreys sentencing some children. I don’t think they’re taking it very seriously!  Our final project in Somerset was also the biggest. Bridgwater was celebrating its 800th anniversary and we were given a large amount of money to mount a major schools project for both junior/primary and secondary/further education. Nearly all the schools took part, producing their own pieces on an aspect of Bridgwater’s history. Tales with Teeth – as we were by now – contributed two major performances on both The Battle of Sedgemoor and Bridgwater Carnival. Even more exciting, (but alas no photos) was our production of The Eighteenth Day, a new play on the Quantock Murder by local playwright Stuart Croskell. The facts are history but  I asked Stuart not to write an ending yet. Instead after the secondary schools had seen what there was of the play, we workshopped possible endings with them. Then Stuart went away and wrote one from those ideas. Su, Alex and I performed the final result to a packed audience from the schools, (all the junior and primary groups having earlier performed their own pieces). I played John Walford, stopping for cider on his way to be hung and for a last farewell with his sweetheart Anne. It was one of the most moving performances of my life and a fitting finale for the Brothers and Teeth years.



The Seven Unlocked Competition

In July of this year several schools in Powys took part in a very special competition based on The Seven and the remarkable artwork local artist Rose Foran produced which was inspired by it and the sequel The Eighth Gateway. Children were asked to produce either a picture inspired by the artist’s images or by the book itself. Alternatively a piece of writing inspired by either. Guilsfield, Maesydre and Meifod schools all produced winning entires and were prevented with their prizes at school by both myself and Rosie. Each winner was given either a book prize, kindly donated by Gomer Press, or their choice of prints from Rosie’s work.


P1010757 P1010758


Beginning at the top we have the winner of the creative writing competition, Jocelyn McKenzie from Guilsfield School. The judges were particularly impressed with her use of atmosphere and mood, and the way that she began the piece with a single word, ‘Falling’.

The remaining two creative prizes of books published by Gomer Press, including a special Gateway edition of The Seven, went to Nell Walsh, (for second prize) and Grace Evans, (third) from Meifod School. Both piece were also rich in atmosphere, ideas and character, with Grace’s put together in the style of Branwen’s diary and Nell’s evoking a rich gothic feel.

Now we come to the art competition. The judges thought that the above picture by Luke Van Hulzer of Tony rummaging through his attic and finding his mother’s mysterious paintings in the first chapter of the book, was highly effective. You can see a box of Tony’s old toys and the swinging light below the skylight. There is a real sense of discovery, taken from just one small idea. Luke is from Guilsfield School.

Next to it is Ruby Shepherd’s second prize winner – also from Guilsfield School. Ruby has clearly had fun re-inventing the idea of the churchyard in which even some of her classmates names are on the gravestones. Again the churchyard and Tony’s mysterious alder tree, in which he believes he can see Eleri’s face, feature at the beginning of the book.

The final third prize winner beneath is from Zoe Baker from Maesydre School in Welshpool with this beautiful and accurate painting of The Seven’s cover. There are of course seven trees on the little mound, as you will find there are throughout the book.

The actual competition was only part of the fun we enjoyed throughout June-July with the Seven Unlocked.

I made several visits to local schools before the competition in July, in order to encourage years 5-6 to enter. Then in July itself Welshpool Library hosted an exhibition of twelve images by Rose which were inspired by both books. At the end of term all of these winning entries were framed and added to the competition so that children could see their own work.  Some schools paid special visits to view the artwork. All winners received their prize of either book or print, along with a special competition and a report for each detailing just what the judges had enjoyed most.

Our special Seven Unlocked Quest however proved so difficult that even library staff were unable to solve it!

There will be more on this in a future post.

You never know – you might be the one to solve it.